What does a United Nations conference in space have to do with the many conquests of Iskandar? What do either of these have to do with the journey of an elephant from Kerala to Morocco? What do any of these have to do with a teahouse in a city that is about to be razed to the ground? Kanishk Tharoor’s immensely imaginative and immersive collection of short stories amalgamate in Swimmer Among the Stars.
Each story has its own inventive flavour to it which allows it to exist in its own right, rather than lean against its surrounding stories. They all transport you to a completely different time and place. For example, ‘Portrait with Coal Fire’ lets us witness a brisk Skype call between an American photographer and an Indian miner, whose photograph is on the cover of a magazine. A few pages later, we experience the dread of Forough, a refugee who wasted all of her wishes on frivolous matters until her brother needs his application for asylum to be expedited.
This is not to say that Tharoor’s stories are not linked, however tenuous that connection may be. Tharoor shares in interviews that this collection of stories was written across many different periods in his life, some from as young as the age of 22, as is the case with ‘Tale of the Teahouse.’ It may be fair to assume that any parallels between these different tales are merely coincidental. But there is one persistent link between all of the stories so that despite how eclectic Tharoor’s content is in this book, their presence side-by-side makes perfect sense.
Tharoor’s Swimmer Among the Stars is not static. These are tales of movement and the perils of a lack thereof. If the book is not about the physical movement of people as seen with the power-hungry ‘Mirrors of Iskandar’, it is about the movement of language, thought systems, and representations across national, cultural, and linguistic domains. ‘Tale of the Teahouse’ is particularly intriguing as the teahouse contemplates their city’s doom rather than do anything to combat this impending attack. The loss of culture is also prevalent; the extinction of an old woman’s language or the destruction of a civilisation also holds the weight of what is lost within them. Metanarratives of a bride turning to stone before the marriage is consummated or a sister who dies due to her own stubbornness illustrate to us the tragedy of the infinite microcosms that are also erased with language and locations. Within language, there is folklore, and within a teahouse, there are more stories with untold endings.
The destructiveness of power is also rife within this book. Iskandar plows through numerous towns and cities until his colonial legacy is merely “pockmarked… with the bones of obedient men.” A Moroccan princess’s deduced fancy to own an elephant as a child causes a diplomatic nightmare in transporting this creature across miles of land and water, only for her to be studying abroad when it finally arrives. The editorial decisions of an American magazine are of great distress and injustice to a miner in India. Consistently, Tharoor demonstrates the monumental effects of the fanciful whims of the powerful on the poorer or at least, the less influential.
Tharoor steps into several nuanced territories in this book, but he brings his questions with grace, humour, and creativity which makes each story stylistically enjoyable and immersive rather than a laborious intellectual exercise. Tharoor is currently working on a historical novel which implies the risk of anchoring his creative potential down to a more drawn-out and cohesive narrative, but this very same issue could very much be the making of his upcoming works, adding whimsicality and originality to longer works.